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Caught between bullying US and soft EU
By Ramtanu Maitra

Over the past month, the screws have tightened considerably on Iran, as the crisis over its nuclear enrichment program deepens. Washington has refused to start a dialogue with Tehran, despite the best efforts of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director-general Mohamed ElBaradei, who was in Washington in mid-March. At the same time, the European Union's efforts to mediate some sort of "work-around" in the matter continue.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was scheduled on Thursday to hold talks with his Iranian counterpart, Dr Kamal Kharrazi, on international concerns over the country's nuclear program.

The talks were likely to focus on Iran's cooperation with United Nations nuclear inspections as well as escalating violence in Iraq. Straw, along with Germany and France, was instrumental in persuading Iran to cooperate with the UN nuclear agency over inspections of its nuclear programs.

There is growing international concern over the country's capabilities after Iran last month resumed work on a key nuclear program in apparent breach of its deal with the United Nations. Britain demanded answers after Iran announced a facility to convert uranium was to be brought into service, despite its promise to suspend all uranium-enrichment activities.

In a deal with the IAEA struck late last year, Tehran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment - and all related activities - while UN inspectors investigated suspicions the country was using a bid to generate atomic energy as a cover for developing nuclear weapons.

On March 27, the embattled regime in Tehran allowed the UN nuclear agency inspectors to return to Iran for the first time since Tehran reversed an earlier decision to bar them because of allegations that the country was hiding banned activity. ElBaradei in Washington, speaking to Public Broadcasting System (PBS) interviewer Margaret Warner in New York on March 18, after his meeting with President George W Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, the UN non-proliferation czar said: "Well, I think, I saw some degree of skepticism ... ". ElBaradei told PBS that he was "just basically being an honest broker, telling the two parties, let us bury the hatchet, let us sit together, that's the only way to move forward".

ElBaradei's trip to Washington followed the deepening of the crisis around Iran's nuclear enrichment program, considered illegal by the IAEA and the five nuclear weapons states. His initiatives were also triggered by Bush's marking of Iran as one of the three countries in the "axis of evil" and the US's belligerent and confrontational attitude generally.

On March 18, ElBaradei told US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that it was "important for the United States to talk to the Iranians", AFP reported, quoting an official close to the talks. There were "signals from Iran that Tehran is ready on this nuclear issue to talk", ElBaradei reportedly emphasized.

According to a March 16 news item in London's Financial Times, the US has been stalling for 10 months over an Iranian offer of landmark diplomatic talks because of divisions in the Bush administration ranks. As a result, Washington has given no indication that it is interested to work toward lifting the 18-year-old sanctions imposed by the US to cripple Iran's economy.

The European Union, which routinely follows the lead fiddler while pretending at independence from time to time, has done no better. On March 22, the EU told Tehran that it will not resume trade talks because of its worries over Iran's nuclear program. Iran wanted negotiations with the EU on a trade and cooperation agreement to allow Iranian goods preferential access to European markets. Apparently not quite aware who makes the EU monkey dance, Tehran was hoping that Brussels would be able to make decisions on trade without securing a green light from Washington.

On March 18, in an interview with CNN, Rice dismissed the need for US-Iranian talks. In addition to reiterating America's old suspicion that Iran is sheltering some al-Qaeda members, Rice also cited concerns about the Iranian nuclear program.

The vote for re-inspection
Rice's comments followed on the heels of the IAEA decision to re-inspect Iranian nuclear installations. What happened in Vienna on March 13 does not bode well for the future US-Iran relations. After a week's deliberations behind closed doors in Vienna, the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, adopted a resolution drafted by Canada, Australia and the US criticizing Iran for withholding "sensitive information" from the IAEA. The Malaysia-led Non-Aligned Movement's (NAM)13 members in the board squabbled for a while to change a few words in the resolution and failed. China and Russia ostensibly provided support to NAM's efforts. But at the end, the inevitable happened, and the resolution was adopted as consensus.

US - the pied piper
The resolution noted with "serious concern that the declarations made by Iran in October 2003 did not amount to the complete and final picture of Iran's past and present nuclear program considered essential by the board's November 2003 resolution, in that the agency has since uncovered a number of omissions - eg a more advanced centrifuge design than previously declared, including associated research, manufacturing and testing activities; two mass spectrometers used in the laser enrichment program; and designs for the construction of hot cells at the Arak heavy water research reactor - which require further investigation, not least as they may point to nuclear activities not so far acknowledged by Iran."

The passing of the resolution means that the Iranian nuclear installations will be inspected again by the UN inspectors and they would subsequently present a report. That report would be the basis for the next round of discussion among the 35-member board of IAEA governors in June for the next course of action vis-a-vis Iran.

The two-faced EU
Iran, having admitted the use of centrifuge, obtained through the black market for the enrichment of uranium, had its hopes pinned on the EU to get out of the economic jam it is in for almost two decades. The hopes were based on earlier interactions between EU and Iran on the matter. On October 21, after concerted diplomatic interactions between senior Iranian officials and Straw, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Iran announced that it would temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment program and sign the Additional Protocol requiring more robust inspections by the IAEA. In exchange for full compliance, the three European ministers stated that "this will open the way to a dialogue on a basis for longer term cooperation which will provide all parties with satisfactory assurances relating to Iran's nuclear power generation program".

This interaction took place in the backdrop of IAEA's claims that it has collected evidence that Iran is enriching uranium, ostensibly for making weapons. IAEA issued another report on November 10, 2003. The US, which had accused Tehran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program, wanted the matter taken before the UN Security Council for possible punitive action. But Britain, Germany and France, at the time, said their policy of constructive engagement with Iran had begun to bear fruit. On November 21 the IAEA accepted Iran's proposal to sign on to an Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that allows for unannounced inspections of its facilities.

"If Europe fails to fulfill its commitments, our cooperation will not continue," Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi had told reporters on the sidelines of a cabinet session in Tehran last November. Last December, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the Iranian vice-president who also heads Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, had called on Britain, France and Germany to honor their words and help secure the release of nuclear equipment that Iran has bought. He did not say where the Iranian imports were blocked, but it is known that Iran has purchased nuclear material from EU states in the past.

"The equipment that we purchased a long time ago - and there is no legal prohibition on its use - has been held up at the factory or customs of producing countries, and permission has not been issued to export it to Iran," Aghazadeh told state television recently. "We met all the demands of the European countries. Now it is their turn to fulfill their promises," Aghazadeh said.

The controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program came to the fore on January 29, 2002, when Bush, in his state of the union speech, identified Iran as one of the three countries in the "axis of evil." A few months later, in December 2002, following Pentagon's public showing of commercial satellite photos of Iran's undisclosed Nantanz nuclear facility, wheels began to churn fast and furiously to nail Iran's nuclear violations.

Washington's unstated concern about Iran's enrichment program is that it would develop nuclear weapons and challenge the monopoly of nuclear weapons of Israel in the region. There is, however, no indication that Iran is, in fact, developing nuclear weapons. ElBaradei told the US lawmakers at Capitol Hill on March 17 that "if you have an enrichment program or a reprocessing program, which means that you can produce uranium, or plutonium, you are really sending a message that we know how to do it, should we decide to make a weapon. We don't need to develop a weapon, but I am telling the world, my neighbors, that I can do it."

Iran's problems revealed
US officials, however, were not in a mood to listen to what justification Iran had to offer to explain the existence of the centrifuges, or mining of uranium, and insisted outright that Iran's aim is to mine or purchase uranium, process the ore and enrich it to levels that would be suitable for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Tehran's admitted uranium mines, plus the confirmation of the centrifuges at Nantanz, would give Iran a largely indigenous capability to make nuclear weapons, Washington officials declared.

Iran claims Nantanz will be used to produce low-enriched uranium for civilian power plants that it has yet to build and not for the Bushehr plant because Russia will be supplying the fuel. Iran also says the Nantanz facility will be under international safeguards, which means monitoring equipment will be installed and regular inspections carried out to ensure that no enriched uranium is diverted to non-peaceful purposes.

While Washington kept the heat on the IAEA, the US State Department dispatched its chief arms negotiator, Under Secretary of State John Bolton, to Moscow in May, 2003 for more talks with Russian nuclear officials to dissuade them from further assisting Iran's nuclear program. Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, is building a hotly contested, US$800 million, 1000 MW light water reactor in the Iranian port city of Bushehr that is scheduled to start running in late 2003 or early 2004. Minatom has subsequently said it will offer to build a second reactor there. Pentagon officials, in December 2002, said Moscow is helping with the Nantanz uranium facility and with a heavy water facility near Arak, in central Iran, which was also revealed in the satellite photos.

US hardliners to the fore
But long before Bolton was in Moscow, some US intelligence officials had expressed their concern through the media. One of their concerns is that if Iran is able to build a "supposedly" civilian enrichment plant in Nantanz, it may as well develop a clandestine nuclear enrichment plant elsewhere. Another concern of theirs is that Iran might somehow divert material from Nantanz and take it to a secret centrifuge plant for enrichment to weapons-grade material.

Boosted by the US intelligence community's focus on Iran's nuclear program, in February, 2003, an Iranian exile group called National Council of Resistance of Iran pointed out at a press conference that research and testing on centrifuge technology was being carried out by a "front company" near Tehran called the Kola Electric Company. Iran says the company is a watch factory and has nothing to do with a nuclear program.

Writing in the March issue of Arms Control Today, Robert Einhorn, a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a life-long arms control bureaucrat, was categorical in pointing out that "Iran's agreement this past fall to adhere to the Additional Protocol and suspend enrichment activities was hardly an indication that Iranian leaders have made the fundamental decision to abandon their quest for nuclear weapons".

Einhorn also expressed hope that it could be possible to convince the Iranian leaders that "nuclear weapons are simply not in Iran's interest". But in order to do that, the United States, Europe and Russia need to stick together and confront Iran with a stark choice: it can be a pariah with nuclear weapons, or it can abandon its ambitions to get nuclear weapons and become a well-integrated member of the international community, Einhorn pointed out as a way to solve the crisis.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Apr 23, 2004

Revolt and Iran: New nukes and old issues
(Apr 10, '04)

Iran's 'right to enrich' uranium
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Washington sticks to softer line on Tehran
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